Republicans are encountering some speed bumps on what they hope is the road to victory in the November elections. Their candidates for Republican open Senate seats in Ohio and Missouri are running no better than even in recent polls. The independent candidacy of Gov. Charlie Crist is threatening Marco Rubio's bid to hold the Republican Senate seat in Florida.
In Pennsylvania, Republican Pat Toomey is not a gimme to win Arlen Specter's Senate seat, even though Democrat Joe Sestak's charge that the White House offered him a job to get out of the race is causing him problems. In Kentucky, tea-party-backed Republican Rand Paul's questioning of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- an unforced error if there ever was one -- makes a race of it in a state Barack Obama lost 57 percent to 41 percent.
As for Obama's old Illinois Senate seat, the failure of Alexi Giannoulias' family-owned, mob-lending bank looked like a fatal stroke. But now it turns out that Republican Mark Kirk misstated his military record. That could hurt him, though similar misstatements by Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal have not much dented his lead over World Wrestling Entertainment owner Linda McMahon, whose negatives are high.
In Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been trailing all year. But his ads attacking his Republican rivals have lowered their numbers, and the primary next Tuesday may be won by a state legislator who has taken some eccentric stands on issues.
So there are glimmers of hope for Democrats -- that they won't lose as many Senate seats as has seemed likely, that Republicans will fail to capture the 39 seats they need for a House majority. After all, they failed to win special elections in New York 20, New York 23 and Pennsylvania 12.
The Democrats' tactics are predictable. Running against George W. Bush (who?) is not likely to get them very far, though Barack Obama can't resist attacking him wherever her goes. But emphasizing local issues (as in Pennsylvania 12), banking on intraparty Republican splits (as in New York 23) and disqualifying Republicans as wackos or on personal grounds can salvage some seats that otherwise seem lost.
Still, the fact that Democrats are reduced to such tactics underlines their problem: The policies of the Obama administration and congressional Democratic leaders are deeply unpopular. And those policies have swept into politics hundreds of thousands of previously apolitical citizens symbolized by but not limited to the tea party movement.
When you get an infusion of new people into politics, you get a lot of unpredicted and improbable results. Some of the new people turn out to be crackpots or lack even the most basic political instincts. Challenging the Civil Rights Act or the 17th Amendment (popular election of senators) is not the way to capitalize on the swelling opposition to the Obama Democrats' expansion of government.
But many of the new people who come forward turn out to be solid citizens, and some have political perfect pitch -- like Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, whom no national political reporter heard of eight months ago.
And the bad news keeps coming out. The gulf oil spill is evidently not going to be stopped for at least another two months; you'll see lots of oily pelicans on newscasts between now and Election Day. The May jobs report showed that 411,000 of the 425,000 jobs gained were temporary Census workers.
The Democrats' stimulus package kept many unionized public employees on the job. But, as liberal economists Paul Krugman and Robert Reich have pointed out, it has not done much to stimulate private sector job creation.
Maybe the contrary. We may be seeing something like the "capital strike" of the late 1930s, when investors and entrepreneurs held onto their money and refrained from creating jobs because of high tax rates and intrusive government.
Meanwhile, the Obama Democrats' legislative agenda threatens recovery. The cap-and-trade bill would impose huge costs on the economy now for benefits promised decades hence. Legalizing illegal immigrants would hold down low earners' wages. Higher taxes on high earners next year, when Democrats will let the Bush tax cuts expire, will tend to retard rather than stimulate growth.
So the road to November looks bumpy for both parties. But while the Republicans are encountering speed bumps, the Democrats are in danger of facing Jersey barriers and "road closed" signs. Fundamentals matter.